The end of the game as we know it

Transfers

The transfer market is not what it used to be. I don’t remember the 1m transfer of Trevor Francis in 1979 but I remember it being spoken about well into the 1980s. In 1988, one of the most talented young players in Britain made a move for a sum of just over 2m – his name was Paul Gascoigne. In the space of almost a decade, the price of a top footballer had increased by 100%. At the time that probably seemed like a lot of money. Little were we to know that things were set to spiral out of control.

In 1995, Les Ferdinand moved from QPR to Newcastle for 6m and Stan Collymore followed shortly after for an 8.5m fee in his move to Liverpool from Nottingham Forest. In 1997, Alan Shearer took a whole pack of biscuits when he joined Newcastle from Blackburn for 15m. This meant that the increase in less than a decade was about 700%! There is no doubt that he was the top striker in Britain and one of the best in Europe, but eyebrows were unaminously raised when this transaction took place. Why pay so much money for one player? What is to blame for this spiraling syndrome?

Now and then

When Spurs paid Newcastle 2.2m for Paul Gascoigne in the late eighties, it was big news. After all, if you put the situation in present day, it was equivalent to Man Utd paying 12m for Dwight Yorke last summer. But Spurs were not the biggest club around in the late eighties. They were off the back of some moderate league positions and an embarrasing FA Cup final defeat in 1987. The top names at the time were Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton. Liverpool had dominated the early eighties but were still a force while Everton had dominated from 1984 to 1987. In addition, Arsenal were winning cups and generally making a pest of themselves under George Graham. How could Spurs be the winners in a bid to sign the best young player around?

The answer in short is money. Liverpool and Arsenal may have been big clubs, but big spending was not on their agenda. The main reason for this of course is that money was far more scarce in football back then than it is now. There was no multi-million pound Premier Leauge. There was no European competitions for English clubs due to the Heysel tragedy in 1985. There were no massive salaries, and hence no big budgets. Things were cheap but cheerful. Being a “big club” did not necessarily translate to having a big bank balance.

Why did things change?

Two main reasons

1) Formation of the Premier League/television rights
2) Re-entry into European club competitions

When the Premier League came into existence in 1992, it guaranteed millions of pounds for each of the 20 member clubs between prize money and television revenue. Coupled with the return into Europe (which brough increased gate revenues and European-wide exposure), it amounted to a significant influx of cash. As English clubs found their feet back in the ‘real’ world, they gradually expanded their mindset to not just European stars, but World stars.

The first step in this direction (ironically) was arguably made by Tottenham. In the summer of 1994 they made German World Cup star Jurgen Klinsmann their star signing. Klinsmann, despite his reputation as a diver, was a world class player – one of the best around. He came at a price – a wage of about 25k a week. This was reported to be amongst the highest paid in the Premiership at this time. He was worth it though. Tottenham only had 1 season with Jurgen, but he banged in 29 goals and brought Tottenham to within a whisker of European qualification.

This opened the doors to all sorts of “Carlos Kickaballs” ((c) Alan Sugar) arriving from the continent to much acclaim. Sadly most of them were not up to much. Witness the impact made by Romanian Illie Dumitrescu at both Spurs and West Ham. Mediocre players were being signed from the continent because it was a sign to the fans that thier team could ‘do it’ too.

Damage

The result of all this madcap spending has not yet been seen, but no doubt there will be one or two high-profile clubs paying the price for their senseless spending in the next decade or so. There are already a couple of teams suffering. Newcastle are thought to be struggling to make ends meet despite their sellout crowds and high merchandise sales. The recent decision to almost treble some of their season ticket prices has been met with derision from fans. Everton are also struggling – thought to be 20m pounds in debt and infuriating manager Walter Smith by selling star player Duncan Ferguson (to Newcastle ironically) behind his back.

If success eludes other big spenders in the next decade, then eventually it will catch up with them. We may not see a club going to the wall but we will see the visible scars that it leaves on the club and its fans.

And finally…

UEFA have done enough to destroy the game 10 times over already, but they never cease to amaze me. The decision to have two sets of European ‘Champions’ League groups matches is completely farcical. Essentially teams now play through two mini-leagues, needing to be first or second in both groups in order to advance. Then they play knockout from the quarter-finals onward. What a joke. Think about the best way to pander to the bigger teams, selling out the sport as a whole, and you have UEFA.

But wait, there’s more. How about if you fail in the God-sent ‘Champions’ League? Do you go back to scrap it out in your domestic league? No, Goddamn it. You get ‘relegated’ to the useless UEFA Cup where you begin to compete from the third round onwards. Isn’t that fantastic? Never mind the other teams then, only worry about the chosen few. What a disgrace.

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